Open Web‽ A Book Sprint

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I’m locked in a room with six crazed writers to crank out an ambitious publication, “An Open Web.” The sprint, facilitated by Adam Hyde of FLOSS Manuals and commissioned by the transmediale, sits in the penthouse of the window/screen-filled Bauhaus property of Collegium Hungaricum Berlin (“Berlin is too important to leave to the Germans,” explains its director János Can Togay).

We’re struggling to define the (open) Web and to make it a compelling topic for a general audience, typified by an iStockphoto image of someone we’re generically referring to as “the Dude.”

It’s turning out to be a good challenge. We’ve made the key design decision to create an outline that carries our thesis in the chapter titles alone. If you can get what we have to say just by reading the table of contents, we’ve done a good job. The goal of the rest of the book is now to back up each of the bold title statements.

I’m hacking on “The Future is Open” chapter, wherein I attempt to argue that the Web as already enabled innumerable successes in a diverse range of fields (education, science, the arts, democracy) and furthermore make the claim that, if it remains open, we’ll see continue to see this and more.

I’m not doing the best job highlighting various online darlings and linking the causation to the Web. As we get stricter with our definition (a huge debate in itself), it’s harder to map the enabler of certain projects. Could Wikipedia have happened without the Web? If not, what part of the Web was critical to its growth? The same question could be asked in many fields. We’re not talking about a mirage of Twitter Revolutions, so what about the Web, as opposed to other internet technologies, fostered civic engagement and democracy? Some of these cases become slippery to pin down.

After a late dinner break and wine-drinking, we pulled up Chris Anderson’s extremely controversial (and self-serving) article, The Web is Dead. In it he argues that the recent trends towards tether appliances and app stores is reinforced by our purchases. “Openness is a wonderful thing in the nonmonetary economy of peer production. But eventually our tolerance for the delirious chaos of infinite competition finds its limits,” Anderson speculates.”Much as we love freedom and choice, we also love things that just work, reliably and seamlessly. And if we have to pay for what we love, well, that increasingly seems OK.”

Is this right? Well, there’s some truth to the veiled point that open stuff needs better user interfaces. Igor has made this fantastic point before: when open technologies don’t work and don’t develop better interfaces, users go elsewhere. Open has to compete with good design and stellar user experiences. We’re seeing a strong signal of this from the tidal rush to dumb-downed devices. But there is no reason why open can’t be beautiful and easy to use. It’s a challenge, and open projects do need more designers and talented people who can create simple yet powerful environments. The Web needs all sorts of people talking about their preferences and lending expertise to making the technology what they want and deserve.

But what else is it about the Anderson piece that is inflaming? Well, his conflation of openness and the possibility of payment, for starters. And his uncouth product placement later in the article (“check out Wired’s cool new iPad app!”). I guess the graph he touted has received a thorough bashing, too.

Still, rather than being reactionary, we’re working through positive statements about the Web. We’ll be talking about rights that users have (the right to enter, participate, and exit; the right to control your data), and we’ll be talking about key battlegrounds (devices, browsers, standards). Joi Ito’s brilliant Open Stack will provide a lot of backbone to our arguments.

I’m so curious to see where this book takes us. I’m already learning a lot and more than pushing up against the limits of my knowledge. If folks are keen to help out, create an account at FLOSS Manuals and dig in. We could use the help!

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